This week in Dispatches, we continue our examination of Snatcher, the game that time forgot, and compare its gameplay to one of its closest mechanical relatives. Does that mean we’ll be delving into the Lucasarts vaults like everyone assumes when talking about adventure games? No, and a big part of that comes between the difference between the point-and-click and the click-and-click, and if you don’t know it already, then prepare to learn a little something. Things are about to get educational…
See, Snatcher is menu-based, which again I think is an attempt to design around the MSX, which didn’t have a mouse (as far as I know) and therefore would be ill-suited for Maniac Mansion style point-and-click gameplay. Everything in Kojima’s game, rather, takes place as you cycle through different options, most of which revolve around questioning witnesses and investigating surroundings for clues. Most of the time your options pretty much amount to relentlessly clicking every single possibility at least once. Dangerous choices are few and far between, and for the most part seem more suited for prompting humor than actually providing a challenge (helpful hint– if you don’t want to get girls mad at you in this game, don’t hit on them too much.) Because of all this, the mechanics of the adventure system in Snatcher conveys more a sense of anal-retentive process than one which fosters curiosity. Instead of just looking where the clues lead you, you’re supposed to look everywhere, leaving no stone unturned. This is pretty much what a lot of adventure games amount to, of course, and in terms of gameplay it’s both extremely unsatisfying while at the same time entirely appropriate to its subject matter. Why is that, you ask?
Elementary, pleasant dreamers. Elementary.
Snatcher is, on one level, a police-procedural. It’s a portrait of what goes into investigating a crime, and if the crime in question happens to be committed by a pack of mysterious cyborgs out to murder human beings, inhabit their skin and secretly take their place in the world in a massive conspiracy to enslave humanity to their ends, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the methods of cracking the case have changed that much from any other detective story. Large portions of the gameplay might pretty much amount to just going down a check-list item-by-item, but that feels strangely appropriate at times, as the idea of police-procedure would somewhat indicate that a good deal of investigation amounts to that as well. In your average crime there’s usually only so many ways you’re likely to find evidence, so you probably are going to systematically check in all the places you’d expect, even when it comes to witnesses. Heck, why else would we get a line like “Round up the usual suspects” unless there were something fairly commonplace about the circumstances of commonplace crime? This is all well and good, and for the purposes of Snatcher as a dramatization of your average criminal investigation, it works. There’s only one problem.
Snatcher is not your average criminal investigation.
Now, that’s kind of obvious to us– I mean, you’re a detective tracking down robots for crying out loud. To a certain extent, the monotony of this list-checking adventure scheme really helps to sell the surreal cyberpunk landscape the game occupies, in the same way that the docu-verite camerawork of the more clever sci-fi cinematic fare of today– say, Children of Men, for example– helps make their outlandish scenarios feel a whole lot more convincing. Snatcher may look like Blade Runner, but feels like Law and Order, therefore grounding everything in a reality more easily relatable to those playing the game, which in that sense makes the mechanics appropriate enough on the terms of getting us to accept what the story presents. What it doesn’t do, however, is really invite any of our investigative process in any way, because the structure of the monotonous list-checking doesn’t really allow you to lose. Far too few of the game’s list-choices offer any negative consequences, and the only ones I was able to find had more to do with having your character hitting on every woman in sight than anything having remotely to do with your investigation.
Without anything to punish you for making certain decisions, the list-checking parts of the game, which constitutes Snatcher‘s bulk, fundamentally have no real danger to them– it’s impossible to make a bad choice, just a whole lot of wrong ones until you finally pick the right answers. Therefore you just spend most of your time systematically checking every single possible option on your list, a fair amount of which wind up being redundant, until you exhaust the game’s breadth of choices and move on to the next round, and while this gameplay may feel realistic in terms of the game being a presentation of a by-the-numbers police-procedural, it certainly doesn’t amount for satisfying mechanics, especially when it comes to that of a portrayal of active detective work. Granted, some puzzles like the long-lost “Find a House!” and others might’ve asked for more curiosity on the part of the player in the original MSX/PC format, but on the console ported version there’s really nothing to stimulate your curiosity, or at least not enough risk to motivate that to become a concern of yours. Frankly, it’s a little disappointing, especially considering that there was a solution to this problem waiting for Kojima all along, one that existed in a preceding game of this genre that stands, in my opinion, as one of the most direct ancestors of Snatcher we have for our consideration:
Now my title makes a bit more sense, doesn’t it?
Broderbund’s 1985 Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego has a lot more in common with Snatcher than you might imagine, largely because they’re both pretty much coming from the same source, ultimately. David Siefkin based the core design of the first game on William Crowther’s “Adventure,” and simply skinned exotic countries and clues on top of the usual caves and treasure-chests. Throughout the game, you basically do the same kind of work players would later find themselves doing in Snatcher, only with a much more episodic procedural presentation– instead of solving one single mystery over a long period of time, as one does in Kojima’s game, the Broderbund game has players investigating a series of crimes committed by a ring of international bandits, one by one, until finally going after Carmen San Diego herself. In each case, the player must investigate the crime, collect evidence, compose a warrant and catch the perpetrator, a handy set of cause-and-effect jobs which constitute a more-or-less full criminal investigation. Now, in and of itself this isn’t necessarily better suited for gameplay, and it’s almost certainly more stilted in terms of narrative flow itself, especially if you want to tell a large, enveloping drama like Snatcher. What the episodic structure of case-by-case problem-solving does do correctly, however, is that it forces an ultimatum on the player, one which Kojima should’ve either recognized here (if he ever played this game) or thought of himself.
In Snatcher, you have forever to solve a case. In Carmen San Diego, however, you have a TIME LIMIT.
See, that’s all you need to add an element of danger. It’s as old as Super Mario Bros.— run out of time and you lose the game. In Carmen San Diego, if you run out of time the bad guy gets away. You lose the case. Because of that all your decisions become that much more important, because you can’t afford to simply check through every single item on your list. The more time you waste, the less chance you’ll have to actually catch the bad guy. Without the luxury of unlimited time at your disposal, all of those decisions now become calculated risks, and the game that much more challenging. Mistakes encourage replays and make the eventual success that much more rewarding because you’ve felt what failure was like before and had to work your way back up. The time limit is what helps make Carmen San Diego a challenging game, and the lack of it is what risks Snatcher becoming something other than a game entirely.
This is especially frustrating in a game where everybody’s supposed to be in perpetual danger of the titular cyborg creatures– in Snatcher, it’s a little frustrating that you’re hardly ever put in danger of Snatchers, except at certain moments. Sure, this is right for the dramatic pacing of the game, but it’s hard to believe that Kojima couldn’t have dreamt up some other dangers facing you throughout which would’ve incorporated an occasional time limit. Heck, he nearly does do this by throwing in things like time-bombs, but he never follows up on them by actually having you try and beat the clock. Once again, while this might fit the slow-pace of a long-running investigation pretty well, feeling the desperation of every red-herring and dead-end lead, it robs you of the excitement and adventure the game’s cinematic qualities only hint at for the player. Instead of the classic danger lurking around every corner, hiding in the alley and waiting in the shadows found in every great detective story, there’s nothing. Instead of film noir, it’s film blanc.
Still, one has to remember that I’m playing the Sega-CD version of Snatcher, so for all I know things are different in the original MSX/PC ones, or at the very least maybe the unlimited-time list-check gameplay makes more sense on its indigenous computer platforms. As it stands now, Kojima’s game amounts to something which is very interesting, but just as troubling in mechanical terms. It’s an exquisitely designed piece of pacing and atmosphere, but the interactions are so limited it sometimes feels as though there’s a bit too much distance, when we very well could be right in the middle of the action. Really, it’s not a game about inspection, but introspection, and that’s part of what make this game not quite a game at all.
But that’s something I’ll get to in our last installment, when we probe the game’s story and explain exactly what I believe Snatcher is. Until next time, pleasant dreamers, remember to tune in, same Dispatch time, same Dispatch channel!